Stretching Generic Conventions

Kelly Wisecup

University of North Texas

I taught Humanity in Algiers: or, the Story of Azem in my fall 2013 course “Unredeemed Captives,” a capstone course for English majors.  The class focused on narratives by or about captives who, because of personal choice or other circumstances, do not return from their captivity or struggle to reenter Anglo- and U.S. American society after they are forced to return. I taught Humanity in Algiers in the first part of the semester, in which we read “classic” captivity narratives to establish the formal qualities of the genre.  I anticipated that Humanity would broaden the geographic scope of the course even while providing a foundation for discussions about the relationships between captivity and slave narratives.  As it turned out, Humanity also highlighted issues of fictionality and historicity, which had already been part of our discussions, and it required students to consider the role of family bonds in captivity and slave narratives.

Students very quickly observed that the text had fictional elements, pointing to what one called the “soliloquies” of the speakers and the editor’s preface as evidence.  As one student pointed out, the characters seem to be performers rather than persons.  These seemingly clear markers of fiction opened up a discussion about the relation between experience and imagination in captivity and slave narratives, a discussion that helped students to reconsider rhetorical strategies at work in narratives that they had previously viewed as nonfiction or autobiographical. Reading Humanity helped students to develop a vocabulary for discussing captivity narratives that purported to be “true histories” and that drew on generic conventions and tropes to shape the story for political ends.

Students noted that Humanity features an unusual “captive”: a protagonist whose “captivity” was first characterized by his adoption by the family who owned him and then his overt enslavement when the family decided not to free him after the patriarch’s death.  Azem’s shifting status highlights the ambiguity in the term captive—although, as the students pointed out, this is an odd move to make in a slave narrative at pains to critique slavery.  As one student noted, Humanity seemed to suggest that captivity—in Azem’s case, slavery—bettered the captive and led to privilege, even as it increased the captive’s the desire for liberty.  This insight accorded with our discussions of female passivity in contexts of captivity and led students to discuss the similarities between the positions of female captives and male enslaved Africans. At the same time, other students noted that, in classic captivity narratives, morality is maintained despite the captive’s status and in opposition to his/her captors, not because s/he is captured and educated.

The complicated family politics in Humanity fit well into our ongoing discussions about biological and adopted families, a concept we used throughout the course to discuss views of unredeemed captives, their writings, and their identifications.  As several students pointed out, Azem’s case both fits into and explodes the trope of the unredeemed captive: he is seemingly adopted by the family who owns him, only to have those family ties break and to be replaced by the biological connections among the family, connections that exclude Azem.  Students were unsurprisingly intrigued by Azem’s narrowly avoided act of incest with a woman who is revealed to be his sister.  This plot point opened up a discussion of how slavery perverts family ties, just as captivity narratives challenge and remake them.

I found Humanity to be a useful addition to the syllabus for the ways that it made strange concepts the students were just beginning to feel comfortable with: captivity, family, and experience.  For me, the text provided a context in which to discuss the ways that other forms of “captivity” existed alongside the familiar stories of Indian captivity, that is, that concerns about female passivity, redemption, and Indian removal influenced and were influenced by experiences and representations of enslavement throughout the globe.







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